I am a vocational listener, and I love it. I love listening to people, and paying attention to their soul’s longings. Every human being is unique, and each story sacred.
I have worked with children nearly two decades now, and I am increasingly filled with a sense of mystery and gratitude of how wonderfully different children’s ways of being in the world are to those of adults’. As a spiritual director, when I am prayerfully turning my heart, eyes, and ears to the child in front of me, I am searching for ways to offer her or him a safe entry point to reveal something of her or his soul to me, and God who is with us. Here are some of “the tools” that I have helped me in this tender process, both in Spiritual Direction with children, and in various other contexts of life and ministry of listening.
I originally created Peace Beads as a prayer tool. However, in my work with children I have come to notice that they are not only a great way to connect with God but with others and themselves too. I often use beads to help children reflect back on their day or week, and talk about moments of joy, sadness, peace, love etc.
When I introduced the beads to the children whom I work with, I quickly saw that they were incredibly drawn to them. They loved selecting a color to match their experience, and the process of stringing and holding their beads as they were talking. There are so many different ways to use beads as a point of connection — with some imagination you can make up the beads to represent almost anything!
Read more about Peace Beads and the prayer guide that we made here.
2. Holy Listening Stones and Story Stones
I learned about Leanne Hadley's Holy Listening Stones this summer, and decided to make a set for myself. On her website, Hadley provides instructions for making the Holy Listening Stones, including symbol-like images that she uses on them. You can buy or use found stones, and draw on them with permanent markers. I used acrylic craft paints because I preferred the strong “pop-out” effect that the paint gives.
You can make your own version of the stones using more concrete everyday life related images too, or images that tell a Biblical narrative.
When introducing the stones to children, I simply start by laying out the story stones on the table or floor and invite the child to share by saying, “Would you like to tell me a story about something that happened to you today by picking three stones? ” or "Would you like to tell me a story about a time when you knew that God was with you?"
I’m always collecting images from magazines for this simple tool that I call “story cards”. They can be any kinds of images of people, animals, landscapes, etc. When I present the cards I ask an exploratory question such as one of the following,
Does any of the images make you sad, angry or happy?
Can you tell me something about your day using one of the pictures?
Which one looks like what you feel now?
If you could be inside any of these images, where would you want to be?
Which one of these images looks most like God to you?
Picture books can be wonderful ways to connect, and open up new channels for a dialogue. If you want to read more about children and images, and find some soul nurturing picture book tips, browse through my previous blog article here.
4. Bodily Movement
Children feel and express their emotions visibly through their bodies. Asking a child to show an emotion by using the body instead of having to explain it in words can be a relief and create a sense of being understood and seen. They can take a position, or make tight fists with their hands, or even want to scream. I also sometimes ask children where in their body they feel a particular emotion. Most children are able to place this is their body.
I have created a stack of little cards of restorative poses for the purpose of letting children to choose a different bodily posture while they talk with me or God, that reflects their needs and desires for the type of connection they want. Sometimes, I invite them to just be still in their chosen pose for a moment and only start talking when they had some time of quiet to themselves.
There are children who enjoy dancing or acting out their stories as well, if given a chance.
Offering a bodily blessing to children by holding their hand and drawing a cross on it while speaking a short blessing over them offers the children the affirming physical contact that they yearn for. You can draw a cross over babies by touching their forehead and then toes, and one shoulder and then the other while cradling them in your arms.
5. Legos, Dolls, and Symbolic Artifacts
Watching children play is a great way to see and hear what they are going through. Most children play their interior life with their toys. Little objects such as Legos or other toys can be great little tools also when asking a child to show something that happened or what they feel. Acting out an emotion or situation in a third person form feels safer than talking about a personal experience in the first person.
In a spiritual conversation Christian symbols such as the cross, candle, dove, and Biblical characters are valuable and attractive artifacts for children to relate to, express, and deepen their spiritual experiences.
6. Visual Arts: Molding, Painting and Drawing
Children typically enjoy expressing themselves with shapes and colors. Having an option of using watercolors, pastels, or clay while talking, or using these to express something without words is a welcomed offer to most children. I consider this as a valuable option in particular in spiritual direction, where we explore experiences and ideas that can be difficult or impossible to translate into words.
7. Sentence Starters
This resource is the least visual and tactile and relies most on words. However it gives yet another entry point to a meaningful dialogue. I have written some suggestions for starting a sentence on a piece of scrap wood (you can use cards etc.) that give ideas for how to start sharing a thought, feeling or question. This is especially a nice tool in a group setting as it invites children to make an observation or ask a question to their friend, and facilitates listening skills, and learning to take turns.
“I sometimes wonder…” “What if…?” “That reminds me of…” “I would like…” “When I was…” “That makes me feel…”
“I have a question about…”
8. Sand Tray
I have never used a sand tray with children but enjoyed it during a spiritual retreat myself! Somehow the sensory act of “raking” sand on a tray, placing stones or drawing shapes in the sand calms the mind, and offers yet another pathway for the soul to express itself.
In her book “The Way of the Child", Wynn McGregor presents a sand tray as a medium through which children can response to God during a quiet reflection and prayer.
9. Babushka Dolls
It often looks like there is more to a story that what is first revealed. One way to illustrate this is to use a Russian Babushka doll (aka a nesting doll) as a tool. Once the child has shared one “layer” of his/her experience you can invite for more by exposing the new layer. There is an element of surprise when we find yet another tinier doll inside the previous doll. The physical act of opening will help children to keep their interest in exploring deeper layers of their experience. I think it is also a lovely tool for having a dialogue about the different parts of the self: social identity (how others see us), ideal-self (how we wish to be seen), self-image (how we see ourselves), and our true-self (how God sees us).
10. Emotion Wheel
I have created a color wheel that has different feeling words on it. It is inspired by Robert Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel. Emotion Wheel gives vocabulary for recognizing and naming what exactly we are feeling. I use this tool as a companion to my Peace Beads.
Not Just for Children
One more thing. I don’t only use these connection tools with children, but I also use some of them in my work in spiritual direction with adults. We don’t stop being physical, tactile, visual human beings who relate to our reality through all sense once we grow older. The saying goes, “All that is good for children is good for adults too, but it doesn’t always work the other way around.”
Spiritual Direction with Children by Lacy Finn Borgo
Holy Listening Stones by Leanne Hadley
Show Me a Story: 40 Craft Projects and Activities to Spark Children's Storytelling by Emily K. Neuburger
The Way of the Child, Leaders Guide and Sessions: Helping Children Experience God by Wynn McGregor
Today I Feel: An Alphabet of Feelings by Madalena Moniz (Picture Book)
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (Picture Book)
Follow me on Instagram @kutsucompanions to see more pictures and stories of how I use each of these tools.